Some within the force have claimed that the current level of oversight is impeding their ability to do the job at hand. Equally though, it could be argued that recent improvements in oversight are making a positive contribution.
This was evidenced by one vital event of the last week. As the country awaited the starting gun for a general election, Acting Commissioner Donall Ó Cualáin sent what’s known as a Section 41 letter to the Minister for Justice. A Section 41 — of the Criminal Justice Act — might be described as a “Houston, we’ve got a problem”, communication. It obliges the commissioner to inform the minister if something serious appears to be amiss within the force.
As such, it is a very unusual communication.
This one involved major concerns around the entity known as the Charleton liaison unit operating out of Garda HQ.
This group acts as a filter for all the information transmitted from within An Garda Síochána to the Disclosures Tribunal.
It was set up in late February in the weeks following the establishment of the tribunal chaired by judge Peter Charleton.
The tribunal is examining allegations of a smear campaign against Sgt Maurice McCabe on different fronts. One of the lines of inquiry for the tribunal is the alleged knowledge or input of Nóirín O’Sullivan and her predecessor, Martin Callinan, into any smear campaign.
Almost immediately concerns were expressed about the liaison unit. On March 17 this newspaper raised questions as to its operation; its members; and the perception that it had all the appearances of an instrument designed to shield Ms O’Sullivan rather than assist the tribunal in accessing the truth.
The unit includes two retired senior guards who are understood to be close to Ms O’Sullivan. Another member is close to Ms O’Sullivan’s husband, chief superintendent Jim McGowan.
Suppose a guard has information that might be unfavourable to Ms O’Sullivan? Instead of directly informing the tribunal, he or she is obliged to go through this filter staffed by close associates of the commissioner as she then was. If you were a guard in such a position, how would you feel about that setup? Would it encourage you to come forward?
What about the whistleblowers?
Maurice McCabe is a central party to the tribunal and a serving guard. Ordinarily, he would be obliged to go through the liaison unit.
On the basis of his experience, McCabe believes Ms O’Sullivan was out to attack his character.
How could he be expected to liaise with a unit staffed by those close to her?
Supt David Taylor is another serving guard who is central to the tribunal. He alleges that Ms O’Sullivan had knowledge of a smear campaign.
How could he be expected to trust the liaison unit?
Then there is Garda Keith Harrison, whose claims of collusion between the gardaí and Tusla were this week dismissed in a report from Judge Charleton. He is also a serving guard.
How could any of these guards have confidence in a unit staffed by close associates of Ms O’Sullivan, notwithstanding the integrity of those associates?
None of them does which raises questions as to a perception that the unit is designed to cater for Ms O’Sullivan and any parties favourable to her rather than all gardaí.
Lawyers for McCabe, Taylor and Harrison have all expressed concern at the tribunal about the unit. Another who has expressed concerns throughout this year was the civilian head of human resources in the force, John Barrett.
He wrote to the head of legal affairs in the force on five different occasions outlining what he saw as major flaws in the operation of the unit.
On the political front, Labour TD Alan Kelly has been asking parliamentary questions about the unit since last May. In total he submitted 25 questions, none of which enlightened him any further on the matter.
He did succeed in having the issue raised at a Public Accounts Committee meeting on November 23. Therein it emerged that the setting up of the unit received oral approval from the secretary general of the Department of Justice on February 22.
At the PAC meeting, the secretary, Noel Waters, agreed to it following a phonecall from Ms O’Sullivan. Then, in a highly unusual move, employment contracts for the two retired members were drawn up the very same day. The unit was then staffed ahead of written sanction on May 5, which is contrary to normal procedure.
Repeatedly at the PAC meeting, Mr Ó Cualáin attempted to stop further inquiries into the unit. Despite this, Kelly persisted. He asked John Barrett, who was also appearing, whether he had any concerns.
“I wrote a number of letters setting out my views and it goes beyond resourcing,” Barrett said. He was constrained from further comment after repeated interventions from the acting commissioner saying that he was objecting to the questions.
Now it would appear that Kelly’s persistence, and John Barrett’s public declaration of concern, have paid off. Mr Ó Cualáin referred the matter this week to the minister under the Section 41. The unit is officially a source of concern.
This raises a number of questions. Would a Section 41 referral have happened if Ms O’Sullivan was still in situ? After all, the unit was her creation.
Do any concerns about it involve any information provided or not provided to the tribunal thus far? And what exactly is the minister going to do about it?
It’s another headache for Charlie Flanagan.
But more importantly, the episode has demonstrated that the various oversight bodies are ensuring that things will not continue as they were behind the blue wall.
Garda management, and, by extension, the Department of Justice, are no longer moving to their own beat. This can only be a positive development for the force and the public whom it serves.
n In a column published on July 29 this year on page 17 of the Irish Examiner we stated that a coroner’s court ruled in 2005 that Mrs Cynthia Owen was the mother of a baby who had been found murdered in Dun Laoghaire in 1973.
We further stated that an independent review into circumstances concerning Mrs Owen’s case was ordered by the then justice minister Michael McDowell and conducted in 2005. In fact, although the inquest into Mrs Owen’s daughter’s identity opened in 2005 it was subject to adjournments and did not conclude until 2007.
In addition, the independent inquiry launched by Mr McDowell was conducted in 2007, not 2005 as we reported.
We are happy to correct these matters and remove any source of misunderstanding.